Life's not fair


Matt Paust

Matt Paust
Gloucester, Virginia,
December 31
Sorry - writer's block... BTW the "birthday" listed above is false. I prefer to keep that day private, but am not permitted to do so here, so I'm forced to lie.


JANUARY 24, 2012 11:52AM

King v. Dickens

Rate: 35 Flag


Stephen King composes the first draft of his novels "with the door shut" to any and all, even his wife, Tabitha, whom he always trusts to read his finished drafts.

He writes this way, "downloading what's in my head directly to the page," writing "as fast as I can and still remain comfortable.


"Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job: it's like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.  There's plenty of opportunity for self doubt.  If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that's always waiting to settle in."

King reveals this, his writing method, in his small book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which I have almost finished reading.  His first draft, which he calls "the all-story draft" because it's the most important part of the novel,"should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else.  There may come a point when you want to show what you're doing to a close friend (very often the close friend you think of first is the one who shares your bed), either because you're proud of what you're doing of because you're doubtful about it.

"My best advice is to resist this impulse.  Keep the pressure on; don't lower it by exposing what you've written to the doubt, the praise, or even the well-meaning questions of someone from the Outside World."

When the first draft is finished King lets Tabitha look it over.  Then he puts the draft away to "rest" undisturbed for at least six weeks while he works on other projects. Only after this period does he revisit the draft and go to work on revising and housekeeping chores such as grammatical and spelling errors.

"With six weeks' worth of recuperation time, you' able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development.  I'm talking about holes big enough to drive a truck through.  It's amazing how some of these things can elude the writer while he or she is occupied with the daily work of composition.  

"And listen - if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself.   Screw-ups happen to the best of us."

In this the second draft King may add scenes and incidents that reinforce the story.  He aims at giving it resonance.

"I'll also want to delete stuff that goes in other directions.  There's apt to be a lot of that stuff, especially near the beginning of a story, when I have a tendency to flail.  All that thrashing around has to go if I am to achieve anything like a unified effect. 

"When I've finished reading and making all my little anal-retentive revisions, it's time to open the door and show what I've written to four or five close friends who have indicated a willingness to look."

King's approach might seem overly cautious to those of us who post frequently on Open Salon, in particular those like my alter ego, Chicken Màâàn, who puts up a new segment of my novel Tribulation Time at least once a week. My marinating time for each segment is at most a couple of days.  I do admit to tinkering and tweaking the work over the next few days once I've posted it, but it goes up unread by anyone beyond the door of my study.  Perhaps this is a contributing factor to the reality that my work even when published ultimately is unseen much beyond my immediate family and a handful of friends.  

Perhaps this defying the preferred creative method of a master of the craft, which has earned him millions - readers and dollars - is enough proof of feeble mindedness to have me committed and divorced, with the remainder of my shrinking IRA and vulnerable Social Security checks awarded to my wife as payment for having suffered a fool for so long.

Fortunately, I am told, for every yin there is a yang.  If Stephen King is the yin in this imaginative figment of a debate, I would proffer as the mitigating yang that early popularizer of the serialized novel, a man who might arguably be considered the Stephen King of his time, the eminently successful and enduring literary giant Charles John Huffam Dickens


To my knowledge Dickens hasn't left us any memoir of his approach to the writing craft that would give us insight into whether he had anyone else read his stuff before he sent it to the periodicals that published him, or how long a marinating time he allowed between the writing and any revising and sending it off.

Here's what Wikipedia offers on that: "Unlike other authors who completed novels before serialisation, Dickens often created the episodes as they were being serialised. The practice lent his stories a particular rhythm, punctuated by cliffhangers to keep the public looking forward to the next [monthly] installment. The continuing popularity of his novels and short stories is such that they have never gone out of print.

This is the place where, were I the kind to plug in a cliché before taking my leave, I might say, "I rest my case." I try to avoid clichés, though, and, in fact, I'm not quite ready to take my leave - almost, but not quite. There remains one point uncovered: the uniqueness of the Internet to both King and Dickens.

On Writing came out in 2000, when the Internet was just getting its legs. was only five years old then and its stepchild, Open Salon, not yet a gleam in daddy's eye.  No telling whether Stephen King's methods, had he begun his writing career on Open Salon,  might be more open today than they were when he wrote On Writing. More likely, maybe, that Charles Dickens would feel at home with the even shorter intervals between composition and publication than were available in his time.

I have no idea how many other novelists are doing what I do.  There are several on Open Salon.  The most consistent who come to mind at the moment is eroticist/philosopher/psychologist James M. Emmerling and neo-noir master Damon Walters

The advantage for me is that knowing others may see my work as soon as I click "send," helps me focus more keenly on getting it right right away.  I'm aware I might also be getting it wrong in various ways - character development, sequence, pacing, detail, tone and even story. 

Screwing up the story, which I agree with King is the most important part of the novel, is the biggest danger in writing off the cuff.  I don't outline or plot, and have only a rough idea of the direction in which my story is headed, with each new segment to a certain degree an existential leap of faith. 

Part of the motive for me is the excitement of immediate feedback, even the so-called "circle jerk" kind that tells me little about how the reader's receiving my tale.  What the quickie comment does say is that the reader has cared enuf to open the post.  That's akin to taking a book off the shelf at the airport newstand and flipping thru it while deciding whether to take it on the plane or put it back. Attracting that first impulse is a potential jump-start.

I've noticed most fiction on OS attracts few readers.  I am one who reads very little fiction here, as OS has so many gifted writers and I have so little time.  Why I mostly prefer the nonfiction posts is something of a mystery to me. Maybe it's because I'm drawn more to real than fantasy, which would seem contradictory, as I am one of the fantasists. 

Maybe it's because I'm trying to make my fantasy world as real as I can without the distraction of other fantasies.   I can say only that it might be even more vital with nonreal fantasy to stay as close to reality as one can, or at least as consistent as possible within its own context.  Tribulation's fantasy world would vanish in a puff of confusion if Dr. Guest, Clover or a Hobbitt were suddenly to enter from stage left and join the story.

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Just about to shut down for the afternoon when this popped up in my favourites queue. An interesting analysis. I read quite a bit of fiction online, both here and on sites like Fictionique; mostly I enjoy it, if only because I'm as imaginative as a concrete block myself and am intrigued by how others' creative minds work. Have you read King's "Danse Macabre"?
Fascinating. And Mr Paust, you are right, hardly anyone reads fiction. I know this from experience.
But as far as writing styles, all of us gentlemen mentioned, seem to write the same way. All knees and elbows. I write in one swooping motion, never stopping. When I'm done, I go back and get most of the typos. LOL. But it's always a first draft. My second cousin, Fred Selden, is a world accomplished musician. He told me on my return from England in the mid '70's, that you must let the music pass through you. Improvisation. The same goes for writing. You must let it pass through you as you are a conduit for the words. Sometimes I wonder how I started where I did and ended up where I did? Laboring over the words takes the fun out of it.
Nice post. Rated.
Matt--absolutely fascinating. this was a great read and truly informative. far, far removed from the usual postings on OS. I got multiple mental "hmmpfs" out of this as it engaged my brain and imagination. thanks.
It is very interesting in what he does.. 6 weeks is a long time for me. I put it down and look at it the next day. Man these people scare me and make me wonder about the silly writing I do. That's right. In the end you are your own worst critique.
Smithsonian has an article this month on Dickens. Thought you might want to be aware of it.
So much so well said here (I never connected Dickens' way of writing with that of an internet blogger - mind blown!)!

One thing that came up to me again and again reading this is how the great thing about art is, there's no one answer. You can create however you want; what's important is the end result. For every King or Dickens, there are countless other novelists doing things completely differently.

I haven't been able to complete a novel in years, alas, but I used to basically come up with the plot, etc - no formal outlines or anything - and then work on the first draft, always handwritten, scene by scene, usually in order but sometimes it depended on what inspired me that day. When the first draft was finished, I'd let it sit (one of my English teachers used to say "let it cool", which I like, since a novel to me in many ways feels like soup when you compose it) for a week or maybe more, then start typing it up, taking lots of time to fix errors (or try), add things, take things away, etc, etc. After that draft, I'd "let it cool", read through it again, and this time print out and carry with me anything I wanted to change, for example awkward sentences or descriptions I didn't get right. I guess I was like Balzac, who went bankrupt because he kept insisting on paying printers to produce entire drafts of his novels, which he would then cut down, edit, etc, and make them reprint, and so on, and so on. Thank goodness for computers today!

Sorry, I really digressed there, but I just thought this questioning and examination of the creative process was fascinating.

As for fiction on OS, I, too, wish more people read it. I read as much as I can, and write fiction here, too - but I'm the opposite of you: I can read short stories, but have a hard time with novels/serials because I feel like if I have to miss a few episodes, I have a lot of work cut out for me. The riches of writing we have here - fiction and non- - has its down sides, too, like the fact that we never have enough time to read everything, alas....
Had no idea you were Chicken Man--why am I never part of the cool kids crowd?

I understand what King does, but I truly marvel at what Dickens did.
This answers a lot of my questions about how you, and other writers, create your fiction. I have been reluctant to attempt any serialized fiction. I know that when I write a blog post here, it often ends up being very different than how it started, and I would feel frustrated at reaching Chapter 15 and wishing I had done something different in Chapter 2. Internet or no, I would feel much comfortable with King's methods.
I meant to say "much MORE comfortable."
I can only hope this makes the cover Matt
You have many deep thoughts on many things about the writer's craft. TY for this. I love both Dickens and King.
check that PM I sent ya.
I'll admit I am more like you than Mr. King. My fiction reading is best described as, I only know it's fiction from the tags. Alas, I don't know why I don't set out to read it, other than I've not tried writing it.

Loved this piece.
Great post, Matt. I also highly recommend On Writing. I keep lending out copies and having to buy it again.
Interesting post. I think King's book is fascinating and full of good ideas. But I would be willing to bet that if you talk to ten authors, you would walk away with ten different ways of how to write a book and what works for them. It probably makes sense to try different approaches, but after awhile I think everyone finds their own.

The arrival of the internet and how it might affect writing is an interesting topic that I hadn't thought a lot about. I can remember when word processors first came out and having trouble finishing anything I was writing (legal stuff back then) because it was too easy to keep making changes. I eventually got used to it but, even now, I sometimes just have to say "That's it. I'm done."
I too prefer non fiction, with some notable exceptions. Uncovering the ways that other writers churn out their work fascinates process like my writing is sporadic and uneven. I have such respect for those who make the time for their gift and have a method for channeling their thoughts onto paper so very very well. Thank you for this and for all! Rated!
Very insightful and enjoyable. If I don't simply sit down and write something out for an hour or so, I'll never do it because I outline and plot and re-outline and re-structure and scrap it all together and start fresh and then outline and brainstorm and....on and on and on...

I am one of those who prefer reading fiction, but I cannot write it worth a damn.

I really liked "Katmancross's" comment about "You must let [writing] pass through you as a conduit for the words." That rings really true for me; now I simply have to try and put it into practice.

Thank you for this piece..r..
A most enjoyable read, Matt; as for the differences between both writers, where do I begin. Excellent piece. R
thinking about this...while having just tried to read a fiction piece online (at another site). Most of the time I don't enjoy reading it for the same reason I'm not fond of short stories. I need that level of there there to pull me on. Wish I could articulate it better than that, but at least you've given me one way to understand why emotional online fiction doesn't capture me as much as someone just kvetching about their day. If someone you know (internet know anyway) is expressing frustration or joy, you generally know who or what they are talking about- you have experienced their voice before and know the author's given background. Fiction is short and sudden with a stranger. It's just not as engaging.
Humor and horror are different for me- those can rhyme, or be short, or stand on their heads for all I care. They come through just fine. Real drama though, that's hard to fake without 100s of pages of commitment and back story.
Both of these masters' works are imbedded in my mind. I prefer King's take on limiting outside interference during the drafting stages of storytelling. I can definitely relate to his leaving something undone for extensive periods of time...I've got a few unfinished pieces which need tweaking.
I think anytime a writer leaves his/her intended reading audience interested in what comes next, chances are the story is well-written, regardless of typos or other minor syntax errors which are reparable during the rewrite phase.
I really enjoyed this, Matt, and your clever cliff-hanger ending sentence.
I think I don't read fiction online because it is so much of a printed page experience for me...much more than non-fiction pieces seem...and it's tough enough to get to checking in with writers I like, much less check in enough to read all the chapters regularly.
That said, I so admire that you are just going for it!
It does seem like just writing, no matter what the method, is better than thinking about it...
As one who really despises Dickens, I say he's not gone out of print because of all the forcing on students of his dreary stuff. Sorry, but there it is. My opinion of Dickens.
I have add and I can't write a book all at once. So, the Dickens method works for me. I think of each short story as a chapter in a novel. I also write non-fiction. This works for me.
Fascinating. I think Faulkner said that in order to write, one must be "demon driven." Creativity helps, too. I have found your writing to be at times breath-taking.
Really fascinating, Matt. Thank you.

Dr. guest is a nebulous concept of a character ; so is rena.
They travel with me through my experiences in the real world.
They are archetypal. But not statically so. They change.
You say:
“ I don't outline or plot, and have only a rough idea
of the direction in which my story is headed,
with each new segment to a certain degree
an existential leap of faith.” Exactly. What do we have faith in,
though, Matt? Can you pinpoint such an entitiy?
The work done spontaneously is immediate & true &
no doubt , no doubt,
inferior if we view it as “something people oughta connect with”,
because it contains incommunicable idiosyncracies we cannot expect readers
to understand, thus it must be fine tuned, by…well, by reactions to it!
If someone loves the story and is invested in how it will come out,
They often have their own wacky theories about how it might or should, which I absolutely love & almost see as the Reason for the work: to communicate it. to display some universality in my own odd particularity.

I have not the faintest clue where this thing will go, my serialization.
I thank everyone who has dipped into it.
Please! Input!

An alarming thought gnaws at the fringes: that this is a new kind of art form, interactive, intersubjective. Yet guided by one individual with his head in the wind, to capture what is blowing there, both for his own sanity & need for community, and his meaning & value as an artist.
I have missed your "Tributlation's" to my regret. Perhaps I'll buy the book. Perhaps not. I'll have to see how my stock market portfolio is coming alone, you see.
I have not, Boaner. I think the only book of his I've read besides this one is The Dead Zone. Possibly The Shining, but only after seeing the movie, which completely dominates my recollection.

I do a little of each, Katman, probly because I have ADD. I write in short bursts and then very soon afterward go back and rewrite.

Many thanks, Walter. It's a fascinating book.

Linda, sometimes the longer you can wait the more interesting the first draft becomes - and the more changes you see are needed.

I'll check at the library for it, Bamy. Thanks.

Time does become a luxury, Alysa. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

Maybe because you're too cool, Con. bukbukbukbukbuk

Crank, King addresses that feeling of hitting the "wall." He did it with "The Stand" I do it in my head after about every chapter.

Thanks, Mission, but I'm out of favor with the management here at the moment.

Fiction is funny stuff, Buff. Definitely not for everybody, not even for fiction writers.

Oops, gotta be somewhere at 6:30. I'll finish answering your generous comments when I get back.

I have not, Boaner. I think the only book of his I've read besides this one is The Dead Zone. Possibly The Shining, but only after seeing the movie, which completely dominates my recollection.

I do a little of each, Katman, probly because I have ADD. I write in short bursts and then very soon afterward go back and rewrite.

Many thanks, Walter. It's a fascinating book.

Linda, sometimes the longer you can wait the more interesting the first draft becomes - and the more changes you see are needed.

I'll check at the library for it, Bamy. Thanks.

Time does become a luxury, Alysa. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

Maybe because you're too cool, Con. bukbukbukbukbuk

Crank, King addresses that feeling of hitting the "wall." He did it with "The Stand" I do it in my head after about every chapter.

Thanks, Mission, but I'm out of favor with the management here at the moment.

Fiction is funny stuff, Buff. Definitely not for everybody, not even for fiction writers.

Oops, gotta be somewhere at 6:30. I'll finish answering your generous comments when I get back.
Interesting piece, Matt. I'm more of a "flow-through-me" writer. I process the idea mentally: topic, then message, then conduit. Or in any other order. Once I have decided on the lede, I just let 'er rip. That might be why I tend to shy away from writing a book that requires a plot that carries throughout. I prefer fits and starts, I think.

I thoroughly enjoy writing fiction, if it is short. I am intimidated by the organizational challenges of writing a novel, though.

Nothing wrong with being a fantasist! I admit I do have a hard time reading fiction online -- my mind isn't set up to suspect disbelief while I"m sitting upright in my (slightly uncomfortably office chair ...why don't they make office chairs for short people??)
Back from the Literacy Volunteers board meeting! (Gawd they're boring).

Miguela, every writer should have his or her own copy.

I agree, JL. I think probly the one thing all novelists have in common is some kind of inner drive to see it thru, or see a novel thru. King has several unfinished manuscripts stored away that may never be finished, and his have got to be infinitely better than the two I have stored away probly facing the same fate. I also agree word processors are a mixed blessing.

Muse, sporadic and uneven is my process, too, altho the closer I get to the grave the more drive I seem to have. It's most likely desperation, but whatever it it, I'll take it.

Pensive, the only times I've outlined plot was about halfway thru my first novel (which is unpublished) when I started losing track of where it was going and started dreading I'd not be able to finish it. The outline was a safety net for the remainder of where I thought the plot was going. I rarely referred to it but it was comforting to have it there in case I got stuck again.

Thanks, Sam. I almost hate to admit I haven't read much of either of those guys.

Jules, I love humor. If you want to LYAO out loud repeatedly, read Con Chapman's CannaCorn. I promise you will love it. I don't read horror, tho, altho I did read Peter Straub's Ghost Story when it came out - after seeing the movie, which scared the living shit out of me. The book was fascinating.

A lot of good advice there, Belinda. I agree most with his emphasis on story over all else. If the narrative pulls readers along, with action and expectations, hooks and cliffhangers, they will forgive you a lot of shortcomings, like detail and description and even clumsy dialogue. That's what King says and I know it works for me as a reader.

JT, I know Dickens is grim, and I think the only work of his I've read is A Christmas Carol. But I do love that.

ADD is my nemesis, too, Wren. But we learn to compensate.

Sarah, you made me blush. I consider myself a rather plodding, prosaic writer. I so envy the poetic touch you bring to your work.

Thanks, Jon. Glad you liked it.

Jim, I think we are indeed on the cusp of something new, an interactive writing process, which you and I have each demonstrated in our work - and I don't mean just dropping the name or trait of a character from each others work into ours. Your Einstein quote inspired me as have your suggestions about the interactions of peoples psyches vis a vis their libidos and other baser natures. King mentions he'd be uncomfortable with a group approach to his stories, but he does appreciate the feedback he gets at different stages.

Uncle Albert, Tribulation isn't going away any time soon. All installments but the prologue (which is on this blog) are on Chicken Maaan's blog, where I intend to leave them until the novel concludes. We're about a third of the way into it now.

Lezlie, if the flow-through method works for you then you are a natural to write a novel. The idea is intimidating, but if you start with a character or two in a situation where they're in danger or a predicament or some other circumstance most people can relate to, you're on your way. As the characters interact and solve their problem they grow and eventually pretty much take over and direct the story. That's how King says he does it. I feel as if it works that way for me, too.

Bell, I put a soft cushion on the seat of my chair and it helps enormously.

Hey, I could never get him to tell me how he gets all those accents. Could you talk to him for me?

I do admire a brain that can create a torrential story. Mine is such a polar opposite to that - I would even call it parsimonious, compared to these guys.

Thanks for the excerpt though. Me, I tend not to study anyone's "process" because of outright fear that I'll jinx mine.
"Danse Macabre" is also about writing, coming out circa 1980. Specifically, about writing horror stories. It was quite interesting.
This is great Matt. I read the King book. And did a little research on Dickens when I decided that enough had been done on Chuck, so I'd write about his brother.

Part I of "Ghost Moons---Augustus Dickens"

I don't believe either of them is "right." They are of course both right for themselves.

Perhaps the real lesson is that a writer can't figure out what's right for themselves until they take in pieces like what you've presented here.

This was a delight.
Each masters in their own way. I suppose the serial is as relevant to our time as Dicken's time. I once suggested to a Prof. of mine that the difference between popular fiction and the Classics seemed to be ... Time, citing Dicken's example. He agreed. Matt, as you say there are only so many hours in the day, I confess I haven't read Trib, but Damon's I read from the very beginning and got hooked.

p.s. I don't want to divulge any spoilers but did you come across the really scary part of Craft yet?
Bard, if King weren't so incredibly successful I might think he did the book for that very reason, to jinx potential competition. It does have a powerful effect, I suppose on impressionable writers, already subject to bouts of crippling self-doubt, that they might as well give it up because they could never write ten pages every day. But then King tells us about his own bouts of crippling self-doubt. He's a regular guy who just happens to have a gift of imagination and a compulsion to communicate his nightmares to others.

Thanks, Boaner. I'm putting Danse Macabre on my list right now...

Roger, I would love to read Ghost Moons, but I don't ever visit Fictionique, as one of its "editors" expelled me soon after it was created for fear my "divisive reputation" would discourage some grudge-bearing OS oldies from joining. Any chance you could repost it on OS? I promise not to say anything mean or snarky in my comment.

Scarlett, I'm nearly done, so I might have passed it. The scariest part that comes to mind is when he talks about getting 500 pages into The Stand and not having a clue as to what would come next. Even tho I have not read The Stand, I felt his panic at the prospect of losing 500 pages of anything.
It amazes me the different styles people employ when writing. Like you, I write off the cuff -- I get a thought and start writing and the words just flow (most of the time). I make up as I go along.
Writing in Charles Dickens time must have been so challenging yet he was so prolific. I admire Stephen King and have read several of his books, yet most of his stories don't stay with me. On the other hand, books that I've read by Dickens in my childhood is still in my head.
Interesting question about how immediacy and the timing and venue of release can transform our writing. We forget that writing is not so much the words on page (or screen) but the push/pull we create (or fail to) with a reader or three.

BTW, I have never read a Stephen King novel but I have read – and truly appreciated – On Writing.
Perhaps it's because I go to London often but when I pick up a Dickens book I can smell the story - like mould.
With King's I sense a tamed maniac.

Great post - "Press the big red button FRed(tm) - it says Rated then,yes then the post comment Boy."
Great post, Matt. As I said in one of your other posts, I love King and his little book. I can't follow his advice, tho :) I love Dickens, too, even when I was a kid. I so admire good fiction writers.
Very interesting read, Matt. Never been into King and I don't know exactly why. Dickens is one of my idols and I have read everything he has produced-my favorite being Great Expectations. People will read short fiction pieces but longer ones and serials have limited attraction. Still fun to do anyway.
Good one... Dickens (one of my favorites) was as close to a blogger as they come. I am reading Bleak House right now, and have to remember it was written in installments, not a novel.